When Cindy Grant, recommended ways to improve the health of Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, one of them included lifelong learning.
That was before the pandemic highlighted the isolation of seniors, especially those with little in the way of technical skills, says the chair of the Town’s wellness committee.
When she reported the committee’s findings to council in January, she was envisioning lifelong learning as what might be available through Niagara College and Brock University. She is now looking at it through the lens of the impact of COVID-19.
She recognizes that seniors, many already suffering from isolation and loneliness, may also find it difficult to access information readily available online.
Pre-pandemic, there were courses offered by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library, available for seniors who were interested in increasing their knowledge of technology.
But since the cancellation of all such programs, seniors, some of whom are cut off from family members, may feel they have no one to turn to for help.
That help is now a phone call away.
During a Zoom meeting organized by the Age-Friendly Niagara Network, Grant was recently introduced to Nancy Siciliana of Cyber-Seniors, a program that matches tech-savvy students with seniors looking for help.
Whether they want to learn how to order groceries and do their banking online, or enjoy a video call with family and friends, Cyber-Seniors tech mentors can help.
Siciliana began aiding seniors acquire computer skills in Beamsville in 2016, through a computer lab project.
Her goal from the beginning was to make tech classes available and eliminate barriers to learning, and by 2019 was bringing together students and seniors through Cyber-Seniors, a program that trains students to become technology mentors for older adults. The students gain practical experience while earning volunteer hours, and develop job skills that enhance opportunities for future employment.
The program began in the U.S. with two sisters, who wanted to earn their high school volunteer hours by teaching technology to seniors in retirement homes, says Siciliana.
With support from a documentary filmed by their older sister featuring their accomplishments, Cyber-Seniors has become an international program.
It trains students to mentor seniors, teaching them to operate their own devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Siciliana also hopes to train seniors with some tech skills, who would be comfortable teaching technology to other seniors.
She was trying to get the word out and make the program more accessible when the pandemic struck, and she realized there was an even greater need for seniors who had suddenly become more isolated by COVID-19 than they had been before, when “everything went virtual, and they had no one they could turn to.”
Reaching out to seniors, she emailed flyers, and had them slipped under the doors of those in retirement or long-term care homes.
Many seniors have been given such devices as gifts from their families to help them keep in touch, she says, but they don’t know how to use them.
Seniors can call to be set up with one-on-one help from mentors, who will teach them to order groceries and manage their finances, she says, or even see their doctor during a video call.
Young mentors also offer instruction on how to use video calling and video conferencing apps for connecting with family, says Siciliana.
“It allows them to see and interact with other people. We’ve made it easier to alleviate the isolation and loneliness, with a tech mentor who will know the device the senior is using.”
For example, she says seniors with iPads can be taught to use FaceTime, an app built into the tablet which is easy to use.
There is no fee for the program, which is funded by grants and donations.
Mentors can also teach how to join a Zoom meeting, which will provide access to Cyber-Seniors webinars.
“They can go on the website, choose a topic that interests them, and click on it to join it,” says Siciliana.
If there is something they don’t understand the first time, they can watch and practise until they learn to use the technology, she says.
The young mentors are also taught specific skills to teach a community of seniors, says Siciliana.
“When you are working with tech mentors who are doing this for the first time, they may have a fear that seniors might not understand them, or that they might not know enough to teach them. The training helps them to learn.”
They are also given the opportunity to work with other tech mentors who teach them to “connect, listen and problem solve. They help demystify working with seniors so mentors can focus on teaching them.”
By teaching through virtual programs, “we are able to serve a lot more seniors than we ever did before. We can reach those living in remote areas, and those who find it difficult to get out or don’t have freedom of mobility. We’ve eliminated those problems.”
Even before the pandemic, Niagara presented transportation problems, for seniors and for high school students who might have chosen to be mentors. Now, in addition to college and university students, more high school students are signing up to volunteer.
“Virtual platforms make the transportation problem disappear, and make it easy to bring seniors and tech mentors together in a way we couldn’t before.”
Grant supports the Cyber-Seniors program, which seems especially useful in a community such as NOTL with its senior demographic, and even more so during the pandemic. “I think this is our solution,” she says.
She and her committee will do what they can to help spread the word about Cyber-Seniors, a job the library would likely have taken on under different circumstances. “They do a good job of promoting these kinds of programs, but if people aren’t online, they’re not going to see it. Connecting with the program now means making that first phone call.”
Anyone interested in receiving help from a tech mentor, or becoming a mentor, whether a student or senior, can call 1-844-217-3057.
To apply online to be a tech mentor, visitwww.cyberseniors.org.